Friday, June 04, 2010


 Niel Diboll of Prairie Nursery "preaching" his anti-lawn sermon.

It wasn't anything I would have expected. I've been attending the Native Plants in the Landscape Conference since yesterday (it ends tomorrow). This conference, held at Millersville University near Lancaster, Pennsylvania for the past 20 years, is one of the major native plant conferences in the US. Until this year, I've felt something of a heretic, never having been a purist where use of native plants is concerned.

This year there appears to have been a programmatic effort to question the lock-step approach to "natives only" that has characterized the native plant movement for so long in this country. This year, a definite theme seems to have emerged, beginning yesterday with the keynote talk by William Cullina, a well known author and Director of Horticulture/Plant Curator for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. The title, "Unraveling and Re-raveling the Web of Life," only hints at a message I think long overdue--that the very concept of native plant is a changeable thing, subject to the changing conditions of the earth, in different times and places. Plants move in response to these changes, and their native ranges change over time. Cullina gently but persuasively broadened the definition of native, raising such difficult questions as whether isolated pockets of native vegetation on their way to extinction should be moved to new places, where the climate and conditions are more suited to their needs. The thrust of his talk was that the definition of what is native is not a simple or easy question to answer.

The second keynote talk of the day, "Perennial Plant Communities: The Know-Maintenance Approach," was really about plant sociology, plants growing in communities, though the word sociology was never used. (I think even our "experts" feel they have to be gentle, and do a little "dumbing down" to avoid alienating North American audiences.) This second keynote talk was given by Roy Diblik, co-owner of Northwind Perennial Farm in Wisconsin. Roy is the man who supplied Piet Oudolf with plants for the Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park, and he is quite a garden designer in his own right, having recently designed beautiful plantings for the Chicago Art Institute. He spoke about the necessity of growing plants in plant communities (another very important theme of this year's conference), and the need to move away from the awful American compulsion to dot a few plants about amid mounds of wood chips and mulch, toward a more natural style of planting based on intimate knowledge of plants and their individual needs. Roy's approach is very closely akin to the approaches to planting design I've read about for years in the works of English garden writer Noel Kingsbury, Piet Oudolf, the American design firm of Oehme & Van Sweden and, of course, many others in the "New Perennials" movement, and, before that, in the seminal work Perennials and Their Garden Habitats, originally written in German by Richard Hansen and Friedrick Stahl, and first published in English in 1991. The concept of plant communities, or course, raises the bar, so that we think holistically about systems of life and not about just individual plants, how communities function and grow, and how much labor is involved in their upkeep (not a lot since stable communities don't require a lot of human intervention). Roy also struck an extremely romantic note, stressing the emotional component of beautiful, carefully orchestrated plantings, and noting how ugly some native plant restorations are--because no consideration was given to these broader concerns of the garden, the gardener, and the garden visitor.

The third keynote talk, by Niel Diboll, owner of Prairie Nursery, and an acknowledged leader of the native plant revival, particularly prairie plants, declared war on the American lawn. With a passion and style that reminded me of a bible thumping preacher on a revival crusade, Diboll enumerated the extravagant costs of the American lawn in terms of what he called the four Es--esthetics, environment, energy, and economics. He's convinced the American love affair with the useless, polluting, environmentally sterile (no, environmentally harmful), and costly lawn will end, not because Americans will be converted to more ecologically sound beliefs, but because the cost of maintaining this socioeconomic shibbolith is simply too great and it will eventually collapse under the weight of its unsustainablility. Diboll's vision to use native plants to help restore the balance of nature, and the sanity of our insane culture, reflects a profound understanding of the complexity of plant communities, and of the need to think about planting in terms of community.

Larry Weaner was the major speaker this afternoon. His ostensible subject was incorporating ecological restoration techniques into landscape design. He, like Roy Diblik, emphasized the importance of understanding the whole plant community and its behavior over time. Larry's talk was much more technically detailed than Roy's, and he demonstrated the immense knowledge needed to create a successful meadow. Near the end of his talk, he also introduced the concept of allowing a certain element of chance to participate in the design of a planting (self-seeded plants, or plants introduced by animal life), an intriguing idea for the more conceptually oriented gardeners and designers in the audience. Weaner's talk helped elevate the conference to a new level of sophistication.

It was heartening to hear Roy Diblik recommend one of Noel Kingsbury's books. In the past, the Europeans have been virtually non-existent at this conference ... are we, perhaps, about to break the blood-brain barrier between British (and European) gardening and American gardening? Whether this new direction at the Millersville conference illustrates a new direction in the native plant movement, a maturing of the movement in general, remains to be seen. But it is certainly a hopeful and exciting change.

The native plant sale at the Millersville conference is one of the best anywhere.


  1. Ach I should have been there to do my bit..I been walking the talk for all the above for some considerable years!! I wish you would stop pumping up the Euro importance in the world gardens scheme of things though! From what I observed in da USA back in 2006 you are well on your own feet in the garden stakes and if given a choice to visit Euro gardens or North American i would be State-side in a flash!

    Shiver me timbers

    Martin (Australia)

  2. Great post - thanks for sharing. Exciting times are underway in the gardening world. It's great to see that there are so many people passionate about increasingly thoughtful and complex approaches to native and perennial plantings, and able to articulate their ideas so well.

  3. Looks like a great conference. Thanks for the synopsis.

  4. Anonymous, yes, you're the master at this. It would in very interesting to see the conference's reaction to your garden, with plants most of them have never heard of. It puts the concept of "native" into an entirely new perspective.

    For those of you who want to see, check out William Martin's garden Wigandia on the side of a volcano in Australia (, among other things, a garden exquisitely attuned to its climate and place, art in sustainable form, surviving on its own even through years of drought.

  5. Garden Wanderer,
    It's rewarding to finally see Americans claiming their own "birthright" of plant and garden heritage. We ignored our bounty of prairie plants for decades, leaving it to the Europeans to recognize their value, and send them back to us, to open our eyes to what was here all along.

  6. Phillip,
    Thanks for reading the synopsis. Many of the plant vendors at the conference were from Virginia and West Virginia, sort of your home territory.

  7. Extremely interesting. After two years in Seattle, I'm still learning so much about the gardening scene here. The ideological aspect of gardening gets so much more attention here in my experience, in Europe design still seems to be more important, even if sustainability and ecological aspects are of course in focus there too.

    Sometimes I feel that gardeners here in the US get almost religious about their "beliefs" of right ways to garden; like today, laws should be banned, for once and all, even if in some parts of the country, and with right type of care, they still can be completely ecological and right from the historical point of view. I live in the moist NW, mow what grows, use organic fertilizers and let the grass turn brown when it is dry - and I refuse to believe that there is anything wrong with that. I love meadows, but they can be hard work, saying anything else is just not true. I bought Greenlee's America meadow garden book and cannot agree with all his opinions that his type of perennial grass gardens would any more low maintenance than other kinds of gardens... I have a large one in Sweden and been involved maintaining many of my friends meadows, and think know what I'm talking about. Very interesting post, James, thanks.

  8. Intercontinental gardener,
    I agree gardening in this country is much too ideological. I also think there is a place for lawn; the open space is essential from a design standpoint in some gardens, and it's useful in others. However, the acres of uninterrupted lawns that consume chemicals and support a multibillion dollar industry based on hoodwinking those who know no other way is almost criminal (I appear to sound rather ideological, don't I?). My wild, lawnless garden, I have to admit, requires quite a lot of maintenance. I hope it requires less intervention as it matures, but so far it's certainly not a "no maintenance" garden.

  9. Mmmm Just think of lawns as a 'void'. They play a certain role in providing relief from the other parts that make up the garden space. BUT they tend to be overdone and rather dull spaces that could be otherwise a wee bit more adventurous.I use 'voids' of gravel and low plantings with the odd 'exclamation' mark to enliven the scene. I suggest it is a problem of lack of imagination when it comes to this lawn versus ??????? ! Box up your garden books and look to the other 'arts' etc..the 'outside' world has far more to offer than the next new plants movement be it from Europe or wherever. In a nutshell loosen up like a meadow and let loose your inner child and have some fun!

  10. If my memory serves me correctly the late great Gertrude Jekyll suggested when planting a garden one should make a list of all the plants one would like to have. Proceed to step 2 and reduce the list to (lets say) one tenth. (I really don't remember her equation so i am making this up as i go along) Halve this number again and then multiply the remaining individual plant types by 10 or 20 or whatever takes your fancy! Then go forth and plant. From my experience the most successful gardens are those that display plants in a repetitive way (like a meadow) rather than a Dan Hinkley catalogue (Dan will understand) of one of EVERYTHING!!!
    I can tell you it works a treat!!

    Woops not another post by ****** (Australia)

  11. Last but not least..if you have unwanted plants in your garden (sometimes called weeds) you ain't done the necessary legwork at the beginning and you are a fool! (biff wallop) I choose my 'weeds'..the plants I know will self sow in just the right amount to loosen my otherwise contrived plantings..its easy peasy but ONLY if you have rid your place of the plants you truly regard as weeds!
    I believe an Englishman coined this style as 'Pseudo Ecological'...I rarely agree with anything remotely 'English' but this title is spot on.. I hope I have put all your meadows at rest now.

    yes again Martin (Australia)
    We really must stop meeting this way!

  12. Speaking of voids, Mr. Martin, I'm feeling a need for some--void, that is. I plan to pull out part of my wet prairie later this year and add some, probably gravel, not lawn, smack dab in the middle (or thereabouts). As for weeds? The worst are constantly being seeded in by bird poop: poison ivy (really pretty in the fall, but a horror to live with) and multiflora rose, and recently, Japanese honeysuckle has added itself. Out with the glyphosate! It's the only way.

    Is this pseudo-ecological?

  13. Good to hear James..YES out with any chemical weed controler with the exception of the odd dab..In my experience the use of weedkillers by spray only sets the scene for the next weed equation. I initially used the above mentioned weedkiller in the early days of making my garden (over 20 years now) but learnt my lesson. I cannot stress too highly the importance of dealing with the weed equation BEFORE setting out to install our finely tuned (in our minds) planting beds. Do chef's plough into creating a dish without initial preparation? I have used to methods to achieve this aim. One I cover the new planting bed with a thick layer of wood chips. (say 4-6 inches) Two wait for any deep rooted and persistant plants to rise through (Dock is a good example) Three spot spray or dab same. Four plant any 'woody' plants taking great care not to leave any soil on the surface of the chips..and so on. The chips are for weed suppression purposes only. Generally these chips will last up to 3-4 years and by then one will have planted the area up well with few if any bare patches..the lower plant level takes up the role of a 'natural' mulch and undesirable plants cannot get a look in!!
    I must add i only used wood chips if I could get em almost free and much prefer to use 3-4 of gravel. I found that for many plants including more woody types the organic covering often caused plants to place their roots too high in the scheme of things and once the chips had rotted away they were often exposed to the air. Much is written about the wonder of organic mulch and most of it is complete bollocks..the only plants which require such an amount of topside orgANIC MATERIAL ARE WOODLAND PLANTS..
    "psuedo ecological' is about providing a place for plants to get on with things their way and for you the gardener to work less to create the scene..its all about the correct choice of plants for your given climate and soil conditions..and to kill of that absurd historical 'good gardening' practice of horticultural one-up-man-ship of trying to grow stuff that does not belong in your given climatical etc situation.
    End Sermon 3783632.

  14. Preacher,
    Too late for me. I turned 65 a couple of months ago, so don't feel I have time to start anew. Anyway, my problem here isn't so much preexisting weeds as those seeded in by birds each year, and I'm not sure how to deal with that problem other than to use plants that out compete even the "weeds." Fortunately, in my wet garden, I'm not at a loss for highly competitive plants. Big things that grow fast and shade out the smaller stuff (though Japanese honeysuckle and poison ivy seem to have amazing resilience). I also have, it seems, innumerable sedges that make nice colonies of groundcover. All is not perfect, for sure, but it's interesting to watch the slow battle going on in the garden.

  15. Baby Boomers may well be the last bastion of the old and tired ways of gardening without a thought for tomorrow. (unsustainable) That particular model was much too resource hungry and the sooner much of those 'ego' gardening ways depart the better..and perhaps we might see some new concepts fitting for this new age!




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